Q&A: Toshi Shioya

"Swing Me Again" Handles Thorny Issue of Leprosy in Japan

Toshi Shioya is an actor who has worked in American, Australian, British and Japanese films, a producer, a director and the founder of acting schools in Tokyo and Osaka, where he still finds time to teach students most weeks. Swing Me Again (Futatabi), his latest directing project, on the thorny issue of the treatment of leprosy patients in Japan, is being shown in a special screening at TIFF. He recently sat down with THR Japan correspondent Gavin J. Blair to talk about his new film, collaborating internationally and artistic compromises. 

You started out as an actor, how and why did you make the shift over to producing, directing and running the schools?

Toshi Shioya: Well in 1994 I got my first big lead, in the ABC mini-series Gaijin — and it got canceled four days into filming down in Hiroshima. Before that I had done promotions overseas for the films Mr. Baseball and Blood Oath [also known as Prisoners of the Sun.] I thought my career had really been blooming in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and I had big dreams of working in Hollywood — so it was a real shock to me. And it made me think that acting is really quite an unstable profession – sometimes you get good work, sometimes you don’t. So it was from around that time I started thinking about teaching acting, and opened the school that year in 1994. So far I’ve taught 9,000 students across the two schools, including lots of the promising young actors at the moment. In fact, Ryohei Suzuki, the main young actor in Swing me Again was a student of mine. So if you have a school, you need an exit for your students, somewhere for them to test their abilities. So I decided to try and direct films; but if you want to make films, you need money, right. And I was very lucky to have Horipro – a big agency in Japan — support me financially. Of the five features I’ve directed, they invested in three of them. And in 1998 there was a novel published in Japanese by Swiss author David Zoppetti, called Ichigensan (The First Timers). Kyoto City then announced it was to give a competition for prize of 100 million yen ($1 million) in production costs to a project to be shown at Kyoto Film Festival. And I got it — I got the money [laughs.] So that was my production debut. [Kyoto native Isao Morimoto directed and David Atterton took the male lead; Shioya acted and produced.]      

Do you still have time to teach at your schools? 

Shioya: Yes, I taught last Saturday in Osaka. Almost every weekend I teach in Osaka, and most Thursdays in Tokyo; except when I’m shooting. And most of the teachers in my school are former students of mine. I’m actually just back from New York where I had meetings with the Stella Adler School of Acting. We’re beginning a collaboration with Stella Adler, where we’ll establish some shared curriculum and have an exchange program with teachers from our two schools. And also produce a feature film. 

Your new film “Swing Me Again,” is about leprosy, it’s an unusual choice of subject.  

Shioya: It took five years for me to realize it, it was discriminated against, the project itself; investors didn’t want to touch it. Actually almost four years ago we nearly got to launch it but it got canceled two weeks before shooting was due to start. We got into pre-production, the potential investors escaped [laughs] when they read the script. In Japan, former leprosy patients weren’t allowed to go home [leave sanatoriums] until 1996. In the U.S. and Europe, this happened much earlier. So I thought I had to make a film about it. But I didn’t want to make a film that was teaching and preaching, which would be boring — I wanted to make it entertaining. Then I thought of jazz music, which was invented by black people in the United States who made this masterpiece of entertainment out of miserable hard times. So looking at the history of jazz in Japan, the first club was in Kobe, called Sone. So I decided to create the story around a promising jazz musician in the late 1940s who gets leprosy when he’s about to debut at Sone. Then I just handed over the idea to my scriptwriter.

So you shot the whole film in Kobe?

Shioya: Yes, the film commission down there is very helpful and experienced. And it’s a great place: It has the big city, mountains and seaside. And actually the when we down there shooting Takeshi [Kitano] was there shooting his gangster film [Outrage] at the same time. And one of my students who was appearing in Takeshi’s film, turned up on our set covered in blood saying, “Look at me, I was shot” [laughs.]       

Would you like to have been in competition at TIFF?   

Shioya: To tell you the truth, if you portray the story of the patients of leprosy — there should be a shot of their [disfigured] bodies or faces. There was a heated debate about this between the producers, and, in a way, I was defeated [laughs.] So to be successful at film festivals or the international market, then I thought you need that kind of shot. But in Japan it would have made it more difficult to distribute. So I had to accept their decision. I’m not Shohei Imamura – I’m not at that level yet. If I was maybe I could force my ideas through. Next time.          

You’ve worked overseas as an actor, would you like to direct abroad?

Shioya: Yes, I’ve only directed Japanese films so far, but next year or the year after, I really want to do a co-production between Japan and Australia or the States or the U.K. I have a lot of friends in the Australian industry, and there are a lot talented Australian directors and producers working in Hollywood these days. So something connected with Australia might be the most likely.

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